I have, in my personal collection, an extant copy of the September 1897 issue of Cosmopolitan that includes an article by Ouida about fashion, “On the Art of Dress.” The article offers some interesting details about the author’s thoughts on style. And, as one would expect, in it, she says a great deal about what she felt were the most indefensible shortcomings of fashion in the coming age of modernity. It is a clear indication that fashion was a subject that was nearly as close to Ouida’s heart as other, loftier subjects such as art, animal rights, humanitarianism, and the environment. If you pay close to attention to her detailed descriptions of scene and setting, you will no doubt take notice of the clever way that Ouida created a rich tapestry of style in her novels by affording her imaginative menagerie of stock characters with distinct outfits and wardrobes as a means of differentiating them in either use or reuse. Here is a list of eight characters that I found to be among the most striking in their style and fashion:
1. Cigarette – Under Two Flags (1867) “…she wore a vivandière’s uniform and had been born in a barrack, and meant to die in a battle.”
The getup for one of Ouida’s sprightliest and best loved characters is also one of the more recognizable. Cigarette’s boyish charm coupled with the combat gear of a vivandière imbues this character with an intense allure—and in a non-binary gender representational way, moreover. As a reader, one finds it difficult not to fall in love with her protosteampunk swagger.
2. Beatrix “Tricksy” Lennox – Chandos (1866) “a woman in costly draperies that the yellow light glittered on, and with the blue gleam of sapphires above her brow.”
Sometimes, her minor characters sport the most lavish attire. In the novel Chandos, for instance, there is something about “Tricksy’s” polish that makes a bold entrance and, at the same time, leaves a lasting impression.
3. Leonard Villers Hervey – “How I Was Tracked by Trappers,” Randolph Gordon (1867)“Six feet as near may be, brown mustaches, aquiline features, shepherd-plaid scarf, wide-awake, meerschaum with a faun’s head and the letters L. V. H. on the bowl.”
This look was so fascinating to me that I could not help trying out the ensemble for myself. Ouida allowed this character to voice his own description. He described himself in a way that suggested he was dressed in a familiar outfit for well-to-do men of the period. However, I imagined Hervey’s outfit as being very different from the virtually ubiquitous suit and tie look that one would commonly encounter in the menswear of Victorian literature and popular fiction.
4. Katherine Massarene – The Massarenes (1897) “this tall, proud, slender young woman, who generally wore black or grey in the day and white in the evening, and put no jewelry of any kind…”
In some cases, Ouida used her characters as a means of offering subtle clues about her own views on good taste. Katherine Massarene, I believe, is a somewhat peculiar example of this practice insofar as Ouida usually exploits her American characters for precisely the opposite function.
5. Etoile – Friendship (1878) “…people were eager to visit Etoile and say that they had seen her home, with her olive velvet skirts, and her old Flemish laces, and her background of palms…”
Not surprisingly, one of Ouida’s more overt examples of embodying her own fashion ideals in a character comes in the form of Etoile who is, without question, also the most autobiographical in nature. The dresses of Charles Frederick Worth (1825-1895) are frequently noted in Ouida’s novels, and they are featured prominently in her infamous roman à clef.
6. Madame Mila – In a Winter City (1876) “I will have a pea-green coat and waistcoat, a tall hat, and hessians; and call myself ‘Advance Thought.’”
Ouida’s society novels ordinarily have at least a few overly fashion-conscious characters, but Madame Mila is one of those characters who is preoccupied by being “fashionable” to an almost comic dimension. The author, then, makes use of this aspect of Mila’s personality to explore her own ideas on fashion in a charmingly thought-provoking and conversational dialectic with her fictional counterpoint.
7. Syrlin – Syrlin (1890) “…real genius had infinitely better ways of displaying itself than by wearing queer waistcoats and uncombed hair on its shoulders.”
When it comes to male fashion, Ouida is almost always regarded for her portrayal of gentlemen dandies. However, let us not overlook the fact that she was also highly effective at creating compelling melancholic and mysterious characters. Syrlin, the protagonist of her lesser-known fin de siècle novel of the same name, offers a perfect example of her ability to depict the tragic bohemian with contour and grace.
8. Casse-une-Croûte – Moths (1880) “There was a woman who was seen on the Bois who drove with white Spanish mules hung about with Spanish trappings... Prince Zouroff had seen the white mules, and been struck with them.”
Perhaps most notoriously employed in the relationship between Princess Napraxine and the objectified, dehumanized Mahmoud, Ouida often allowed the fashion accessories to do the work of illustrating various facets of a character’s personality. Casse-une-Croûte, one of my favorite in Ouida’s cast of brash courtesans, comes complete with a holstered saloon pistol to accentuate her eccentricities.